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Two Strains of Altruism

Two Strains of Altruism

7 Mins
October 21, 1998

Individualism as a moral doctrine includes the idea that individuals have a right to live for themselves to pursue their own happiness. It says: Each individual is an end in himself. And that means individualism is not compatible with altruism.

"The basic principle of altruism" Ayn Rand said, "is that man has no right to exist for his own sake, that service to others is the only justification of his existence, and that self-sacrifice is his highest moral duty, virtue, and value." ("Faith and Force: Destroyers of the Modern World" Philosophy: Who Needs It [New York: Bobbs-Merrill Co., Inc., 1982, 74])


If we look for the sources of altruism in our culture, a good place to start is the New Testament, especially the Gospels. And if we read the Gospels carefully, we will see two distinct strands in the altruistic message that Jesus teaches.

The first of these is the message of sacrifice:

If any man will sue thee at the law, and take away thy coat, let him have thy cloak also. . . .

Give to him that asketh thee, and from him that would borrow of thee turn not thou away. (Matt. 5: 40–42)

If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven. (Matt. 19:21)

Jesus's own mission is a form of sacrifice: He gives his life to save mankind.

But there is another strain of altruism in the Gospels, expressed most clearly in the Beatitudes.

Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted.

Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth.

Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled.

Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy.

Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God.

Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called children of God.

Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness' sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. (Matt. 5: 3–10)

According to this strain of altruism, it isn't just that those who lack ability, strength, wealth, and so on need our help and we should give it to them. According to this strain, the helpless, weak, and the poor are actually superior to the able, the strong, the wealthy. They are the ones who will get into heaven most easily.

Indeed the able, the strong, and the wealthy are suspect precisely because of their ability, strength, and wealth. "It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven" (Matt. 19:24).

This is the leveling form of altruism.

In the Gospels, there is a theological rationale for altruism's inversion of values. This world is in opposition to the next, this life to the next. Our bodies are attached to this world but our souls years for the life to come. Failure in this world is a good sign that one will flourish in the next, and vice versa: Success in this world is a very bad sign.

In sum, then, Jesus is asking us to do two distinct things, both of which are unnatural: First, value others above self—that's the sacrificial form of altruism. Secondly, value the low end of the scale of human values over the high end. Value poverty over wealth inability over ability, weakness over strength.

And just as Jesus's own life embodies sacrifice so too does it embody this leveling ethic. He went out of his way to fraternize with the dregs of society, spending time with prostitutes. He even hung out with tax collectors.

It is this leveling aspect of altruism that gives rise to egalitarianism, which I would broadly describe as holding that:

  • People are equal, morally speaking.
  • Differences in status, or wealth, or power or esteem are unmerited.
  • Those who are low on those scales of status, wealth, power, and esteem are victims, who should be honored and helped.
  • Those who are high on those scales are oppressors, who should be cut down to size or made to pay in some way.

And remember, this egalitarianism does not apply only to innate and unchosen abilities and traits. It applies also to moral traits. "Judge not, that ye be not judged" (Matt. 7:1).

What is the root of that idea, the idea of putting mercy over justice? The root, I suggest, is that the leveling concept of victimization applies even to the morally challenged.

So we have two strains of altruism: The core concept of the first is sacrifice; the core concept of the second is equality.


Now, Enlightenment thinkers did not directly address, refute, and oppose either strain of altruism. And one reason for this is that the core concept in each case is easily confused with a valid concept that is essential to a rational, enlightened ethic.

For example, sacrificial altruism masquerades as benevolence, generosity, kindness. In fact, I think it can be shown—and has been shown—that these latter traits, the virtues of benevolence, are expressions of rational self-interest on the part of those who know the values they derive from living with others. And true altruism, which views each person as a means to the ends of other people—a potential sacrificial victim—is hardly a doctrine on which to base genuine brotherly love. But it does don that mask.

Moreover, there are "selfish" people in the world, people who are vain and self-centered; who are mean and petty and grasping; who walk all over others and exploit them. This is a fairly salient character-type in all cultures, and altruism has often been put forward as a counter to that.

So, altruism is, on the positive side, supposed to be an expression of benevolence; on the negative side, it is supposed to be the antidote to negative "selfish" traits.

A similar situation obtains with equality-altruism. It masquerades as justice. One of the key things that the Enlightenment thinkers were trying to do was to overcome unmerited, irrational, coercively backed distinctions among people; the different classes and the orders of the aristocracy. Political equality was one of the cardinal virtues of the Enlightenment and was a perfectly rational one.

Condorcet went so far as to say that two of the three marks of progress that he was going to take as fundamental were equality among nations and equality within nations. And that was not an unreasonable thing for him to say, even as an individualist, because at the time most of those inequalities came from previous acts of oppression, by which the clergy and the aristocracy gained their land and their wealth. Dismantling those inequalities was therefore reasonably seen as justice.

Leveling-equality dons the mask of justice in a second way as well. In all ages, including our own, there is irrational prejudice against people for irrelevant characteristics, such as race, or background, or (in many contexts) sex. It is deeply irrational to discriminate against someone for a job because that person is of a certain color. That is irrational; it's harmful; it's ugly. And the idea of equality, as a principle, promises to solve that to deal with that very real problem.

So, the sacrificial strain of equality masquerades as benevolence and as a cure for meanness, while the leveling strain of altruism masquerades as a way of correcting injustice and as a cure for prejudice.

But these are masquerades. Sacrifice is not in fact the same as benevolence. One of the clearest refutations of this I think, is Ayn Rand's story of the Starnes factory in Atlas Shrugged. If it's noble to give, why is it not wrong to receive? If it is nobler to give than receive and we're all giving who's going to receive and why aren't they in moral hot water? Well, because they didn't earn it. The core notion here is a hostility toward the earned—a desire for the unearned on the part of recipients and a desire to deny to those who have genuinely earned a value a right to what they've earned.

On the equality side, too leveling is a masquerade. Altruist-equality is not the same thing as justice. Equality before the law is a very important political principle—one we could use more of today. And equality in the sense of an even-handed application of moral principles when we are judging people or making decisions about merit—that, too, is a very important part of justice.

But the underlying motive of altruism-leveling is envy—resentment of achievement and the traits that make achievement possible.


If this moral distinction seems like a mere nuance, consider the political manifestation of these two strains of altruism. The primary political expression of sacrificial altruism today is the welfare state. And one of the primary foundations of the welfare state is the idea: "We're all in this together. We should sacrifice to each other and help out those who are in need." Need is the fundamental moral concept of the welfare state and fulfilling needs is the primary goal of the welfare state.

On the leveling side, equality is pursued is primarily through regulatory programs, most of them modeled on civil-rights law and affirmative action.

Now, I would say that today, though the welfare state is a huge monster, its growth has been largely checked. But the regulatory programs to promote equality have not been checked. One superficial reason for this is that the welfare state takes tax money and people get tired of paying tax money. There is a built-in resistance to it. Regulatory programs do not cost the government anything. They are just ways of making others pay, and the sky's the limit there. At this point, there is no effective check.

And so we have not had a significant new welfare program in about twenty years. Clinton's health care plan went down in flames. But we've had a continual procession of new egalitarian measures to promote equality.

Some of them have encountered resistance. Affirmative action, which is one of the oldest (going back to the 1960s), has recently had some court cases go against it. California voters passed an initiative to prohibit the state university system from taking race into account in admissions. So, there's a bit of good news on that front. But we have to remember that affirmative action, over twenty years, has had tremendous effects. It has created a culture—certainly in education. When I was a professor, I know, whether you were white or black or Hispanic made a big difference to your fate. Whether you were male or female made a big difference. It was just taken for granted, sometimes even as a spoken truth, that a woman applicant for a philosophy job automatically had a leg up. And this has now been built into the culture.

There has also been some good news recently on the front of bilingual programs, one of the more horrendous programs. That was also checked by the California voters. But we still have a huge bilingual program throughout the country, which does such inane things as taking native English speakers and putting them into these programs just because of their ethnic background and dumbing them down in a way that is truly monstrous.

In employment, we have a flourishing diversity industry, which is parasitical on the equal-employment laws and on court cases. One estimate is that diversity training of some kind or other is used at about half of all large companies (companies with 100 employees or more), and something on the order of $10 billion is being spent on this annually. That is at best a waste, and at worst a grotesque form of indoctrination into the culture of the anti-Enlightenment.

Lastly, I will mention antitrust suits. I'm sure you've all followed the Microsoft suit. Antitrust is an economic expression of egalitarianism. No one is allowed to succeed too much by taking over too much of the industry. One of the heartening things here is that I can't remember an antitrust case that generated so much public opposition and raised up so many defenders of the company under attack. So that is another good sign. But we're still dealing with a robust movement that is barreling along.

What do we do about it? How do we counter egalitarianism?

We're all used to countering the sacrificial sort of altruism by insisting on the individual's right to live for himself. But insofar as we are faced with a different strain of altruism here, we need a different reply. And I would say it's twofold.

One is to become ourselves champions of the right kind of equality, that is, champions of justice. One of the saddest things about the individualist movement—and I mean the Objectivist and libertarian movement—over the last thirty years is that we let the Left take the fight against prejudice away from us. As individualists and advocates of reason, we ought to be the ones promoting this. We ought to be the ones saying, "Judge people by who they are as individuals, not by the groups they belong to. Be rational in how you apply standards of justice. Don't let prejudice and bias affect your judgment." We should be the ones saying that. But we shy away from doing so because the fight against discrimination got infected with leftist premises.

On the positive side, we should be advocates of achievement. We should celebrate achievement, both individual achievements and the idea of achievement, and defend them whenever they come under attack. For instance, there is an organization for kids' soccer that says, "Before a certain age, we're not going to allow scoring. No one can win. That way there won't be any losers." We should be exposing the premises that lie behind that kind of thinking.

If we can do these two things—take back the fight for justice and become defenders of achievement—I believe we will have the weapons to succeed against egalitarianism.

David Kelley


David Kelley

David Kelley is the founder of The Atlas Society. A professional philosopher, teacher, and best-selling author, he has been a leading proponent of Objectivism for more than 25 years.

David Kelley Ph.D
About the author:
David Kelley Ph.D

David Kelley founded The Atlas Society (TAS) in 1990 and served as Executive Director through 2016. In addition, as Chief Intellectual Officer, he was responsible for overseeing the content produced by the organization: articles, videos, talks at conferences, etc.. Retired from TAS in 2018, he remains active in TAS projects and continues to serve on the Board of Trustees.

Kelley is a professional philosopher, teacher, and writer. After earning a Ph.D. in philosophy from Princeton University in 1975, he joined the philosophy department of Vassar College, where he taught a wide variety of courses at all levels. He has also taught philosophy at Brandeis University and lectured frequently on other campuses.

Kelley's philosophical writings include original works in ethics, epistemology, and politics, many of them developing Objectivist ideas in new depth and new directions. He is the author of The Evidence of the Senses, a treatise in epistemology; Truth and Toleration in Objectivism, on issues in the Objectivist movement; Unrugged Individualism: The Selfish Basis of Benevolence; and The Art of Reasoning, a widely used textbook for introductory logic, now in its 5th edition.

Kelley has lectured and published on a wide range of political and cultural topics. His articles on social issues and public policy have appeared in Harpers, The Sciences, Reason, Harvard Business Review, The Freeman, On Principle, and elsewhere. During the 1980s, he wrote frequently for Barrons Financial and Business Magazine on such issues as egalitarianism, immigration, minimum wage laws, and Social Security.

His book A Life of One’s Own: Individual Rights and the Welfare State is a critique of the moral premises of the welfare state and defense of private alternatives that preserve individual autonomy, responsibility, and dignity. His appearance on John Stossel’s ABC/TV special "Greed" in 1998 stirred a national debate on the ethics of capitalism.

An internationally-recognized expert on Objectivism, he has lectured widely on Ayn Rand, her ideas, and her works. He was a consultant to the film adaptation of Atlas Shrugged, and editor of Atlas Shrugged: The Novel, the Films, the Philosophy.


Major Work (selected):

Concepts and Natures: A Commentary on The Realist Turn (by Douglas B. Rasmussen and Douglas J. Den Uyl),” Reason Papers 42, no. 1, (Summer 2021); This review of a recent book includes a deep dive into the ontology and epistemology of concepts.

The Foundations of Knowledge. Six lectures on the Objectivist epistemology.

The Primacy of Existence” and “The Epistemology of Perception,” The Jefferson School, San Diego, July 1985

Universals and Induction,” two lectures at GKRH conferences, Dallas and Ann Arbor, March 1989

Skepticism,” York University, Toronto, 1987

The Nature of Free Will,” two lectures at The Portland Institute, October 1986

The Party of Modernity,” Cato Policy Report, May/June 2003;and Navigator, Nov 2003; A widely cited article on the cultural divisions among pre-modern, modern (Enlightenment) and postmodern views.

"I Don't Have To" (IOS Journal, Volume 6, Number 1, April 1996) and “I Can and I Will” (The New Individualist, Fall/Winter 2011); Companion pieces on making real the control we have over our lives as individuals.